Tuesday, 13 November 2012

You Got Mail

We all use email as a given, without thinking if it is the best way to communicate all the time. In fairness, it is easy to use, works on almost any device and best of all is relatively cheap. For some of us, it is even a handy way to maintain a to-do list. That notwithstanding here are a few points to consider.

Could email bring out your dark side? Turns out it might. A 2008 study suggests that communicating via email, as opposed to face to face, can make us less cooperative and  more justified in being non cooperative. If you want to avoid getting a 'No' to your request for help, you may be best advised to ask face to face and not over email.

We have all been deep in a train of thought when we see an incoming email pop up in the corner of our screen.  The result is either distraction from the task in hand or as is often the case, a fatal blow to our mojo. Research by Jackson et al. found that 70% of emails were attended to within six seconds of arriving. Unless you were doing nothing at the time, this probably represents a distraction. Worse still, it took an average of 64 seconds to resume an interrupted task.

It might be an idea to turn off your email pop up alerts, check your in-box at periodic intervals or set your send and receive to be every 30 minutes. If being distracted by email is an unavoidable occupational hazard, then the least we can do is manage it.

The constant arrival of email can also be a bit demotivating. It can seem like your work is never done. As soon as one email is dealt with another arrives and so on. A 2010  New York Times article drew an interesting analogy between zombies and emails: you keep killing them (or deleting them), and they never stop coming. It is all subjective, but relentless connectivity via the cheap and easily available email  might impact on aspects of our psyche and behaviour, leaving us stressed and feeling a little helpless.

Put it another way, ever wonder what would happen if you gave up on email? Gloria Mark, Informatics Professor at UC Irvine has investigated this. It took a while to find an organisation willing to participate (such was the reliance on email) but in 2009 she got her participants.

They took 13 volunteers, did a baseline measure by having them work as usual for several days. Email was then cut off and the measurements (for  heart rate variability) continued.There wasn't  a discernible trend on days 1 and 2. However by day 5, a definite pattern emerged, participants were becoming less stressed after being away from the ubiquitous email.

Another interesting observation was that people reported getting up out of their office and walking around a lot more. They interacted with people face to face, and they reported it as a benefit. They enjoyed it.

Better still, people reported that they were more productive and were able to focus on tasks longer. Monitoring of computer screen activity showed that  people with email switched windows about 37 times per hour. Without email, that was cut by half to 18 times per hour. Email it seems, may be detrimental to focusing on your key tasks and may inhibit your ability to multitask by encouraging constant switching between windows.

So its not about using or not using email, but maybe just a bit more intelligent use. Take some control of the frequency of email alerts. Even though you have email, still try and engage face to face when you can. If you need to focus on something, close down your email client. Don't let email just happen.